IT is always difficult when an old friend hits a bump in the road, loses their way a little, or simply begins to show their age with less than flattering results. For 10 years now we have been travelling to Lisbon, enjoying the delights of the Silver Coast to the north and the Blue Coast to the south for a welcome spring break that has seen us kick-start the golfing year in style. The weather is almost always warm and sunny, the people friendly and welcoming and the standard of golf courses exceptional.
The area may not have the same global reach as Portugal's other great golfing destination of the Algarve, but that has always been part of the appeal for our group.
In a curious way we feel that we almost discovered this beautiful area for ourselves, and therefore feel that our annual pilgrimage has become a homecoming – at least to a second home. Over the years, we have visited may different courses on these trips, each time playing seven rounds in seven days, but we have also kept some things the same every year, on the basis that we never wanted to fix what wasn't broken.
And the climax of our trip, the final round when the order of merit for the week was decided and bragging rights for the next 12 months assigned, was always Penha Longa's Atlantic Course.
Last year, however, this magnificent track was in something of a pickle. The wettest winter on record for the region had left Penha Longa in poor shape. The fairways were saturated to the extent that even a well-struck drive (rare enough for us) was likely to be lost.
And golf is a tough enough game without having to contend with that.
So before booking this year we checked in with Nuno Sepulveda, golf operations manager at this vast estate, where golf is only part of what they have to offer – horse-riding and tennis are among the other activities available to guests of the magnificent hotel. Nuno had good news about the Robert Trent Jones Junior-designed course. The trials and tribulations of last year had led to a major drainage overhaul, specifically on the sixth, eighth and 18th holes, which is now complete.
The jewel in the crown of Lisbon golf is back to its best and if you have never visited the venue, you have a real treat in store.
There is another Irish connection. The late Robert Judd went on holiday to the region in the early 1990s, fell in love with Penha Longa and decided to stay, going on to work as a professional at the course. We will miss his words of welcome when we return this year.
We base ourselves on these trips in a seaside town called Praia das Macas – the beach of the apples – and while it is quiet in spring, in summer it is a bustling holiday destination for locals and foreigners alike. It is also something of a mecca for surfers.
In true Irish style, we have adopted a pub as our local over the years and under the friendly management of Bruno, Loureiro is the perfect place to gather for pre- and post-dinner drinks, where the day's action on the course can be relived. The area is renowned for its seafood restaurants, of course, and Buzio, Oceanio and Nautilus are three of the finest within a stone's throw of each other. We have eaten sea bass and sea bream there that has been caught that very day, just yards from the front door of the restaurant.
In Ireland, we are, of course, blessed with some of the finest links courses in the world and while many purists will contend that golf links other than those in the British Isles are somehow inferior, there are two examples we regularly visit which might change the mind of the most hardened sceptic.
Both are longish drives from our base, making it a day trip to sample their delights, but both are well worth the effort.
To the north lies Praia D'el Rey, one of the most stunning golf courses you will find in continental Europe. Set among extensive pine forests and undulating dunes, the course offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and while it could never be described as easy, it is fair and will reward good golf.
The course is a mixture of seaside links and some parkland holes. Deep bunkers, sloping greens and sandy dunes contrast sharply with the lush fairways, making it the complete golfing challenge. But don't forget the golden rule of links golf – stay on the fairway, and if you miss it, take your punishment.
A trip south across the spectacular Vasco Da Gama Bridge, which spans the Tagus River, brings us eventually to Setubal where we board the ferry to Troia. The peninsula can also be reached by driving 'the long way around' but the ferry trip is a welcome distraction.
The course at Troia is savage and while it may sound perverse, once you accept that the track is going to beat you all ends up you can relax and enjoy the ride
Designed by Robert Trent Jones Senior, it offers a link to Penha Longa but is completely different in every other aspect.
The holes are laid out on the dunes whilst magnificent pinewoods line most of the fairways on the inland side. The course is challenging, but the views across the sand to the magnificent blue Atlantic will soothe your pain and the beautiful clubhouse is a great place to relax with a well-deserved beer when you reach your journey's end.
Back closer to home, two of our favourite tracks, but two completely different courses are Estoril and Oitavos.
Estoril is a short-ish layout which retains all the charm of an old colonial style golf club with a variety of holes that will offer opportunities to score while maintaining your interest. Oitavos, on the other hand, demands that you are at your best all the way around, but if you can manage to keep your ball in play you will really enjoy the challenge.
Aer Lingus flies direct from Dublin and Cork to Lisbon. Portugal's Silver Coast to the north of Lisbon and Blue Coast to the south offer a full range of accommodation from bed and breakfast to self-catering apartments and villas to five star hotels. For Further information visit portugal.com
Penha Longa Ph: 00351-219 249011
Praia D'el Rey Ph: 00351-262 905000
Estoril Golf Ph: 00351-214 648000
Oitavos Dunes Ph: 00351-214 860600
Troia Golf Ph: 00351-265 499 400